There is a good chance that you are reading this because you want to get stronger. That is an awesome goal to have and one that is achievable. Initially, I started out as someone who just wanted to get better at fitness overall and gain muscle mass. However, over time I started to appreciate strength more and more.
One thing that isn’t well known in regards to natural athletes (those who choose not to participate in performance enhancing methods and drugs) is how synergistic strength and size are. When you aren’t using substances to help aid you muscle growth, your strength will heavily play into how big you are, and vice versa. By increasing your strength, you will be able to perform exercises in a hypertrophy repetition range with heavier weight. By performing those exercises with heavier weight you will grow through hyperplasia (enlargement of tissue caused by reproduction of cells). As you can see, this is a cycle that feeds upon itself. Bottom line, if you are looking to achieve better results overall and develop a better physique, you need to focus on strength as well.
Traditionally, people understand strength training as a focus on using heavier weight with lower repetitions. This is a good base point and not off course. However, there is much more that also goes into developing strength. In strength training there are multiple variables that determine how much weight you can lift. Neuromuscular conditioning is going to play the biggest role in your strength.
What exactly is neuromuscular conditioning? It is a catch-all phrase that refers to your ability to develop power and perform a specific movement. It is the reason why people spend countless hours practicing their sport and honing their craft. It is the reason why people spend time to practice their free throws or tennis serve. However, it also has a role to play in lifting weights and exercise.
Through spending time in the gym and consciously practicing what you are doing, you will become better at the actual event of performing lifts. You will become better at synchronously firing your muscles. You will learn to develop power symmetrically in order to efficiently move weight. You will condition your nervous system to behave well under heavy loads. The conglomerate of these improvements will add up to your strength potential.
Getting more and more practice in the weight room will translate into an obvious proficiency. However, to maximize this you need to make sure that you are truly thinking about the movements you are putting yourself through. Just walking into the gym and walking up to the nearest machine before slapping on some weight and going for it isn’t going to do anything in the way of building strength. Start by visualizing how you want each repetition and set to go. Think about everything you can. Think about where you want to grip the bar. Think about how you want to position it on your chest for benching or atop your traps while squatting.
This doesn’t mean that you want to inhibit yourself by introducing too many variables into the equation. Simply focus on one thing at a time. Maybe you go into the gym one day and decide you want to pay special attention to how deep you are squatting. The next time you have a lower-body day you might instead think about your walkout or how you want to hold the bar against your back. Getting stronger is all about learning to maximize the variables available to you. It truly is a real-world example of equation optimization that you find in calculus. By adjusting those different variables over time, you will narrow down on the best of everything that equals the results you want.
Be aware of how your body feels when doing the exercise as well. This is a crucial step in stopping imbalances from forming or fixing them once you already have one. Pay attention to the amount of force being produced in each arm or leg when exercising. There is a slight chance that force is uneven. Being able to recognize it will help you to make results without being set back by developing muscular imbalances.
I know what you are probably thinking. You probably think that I am just spitting some science at you. I have a cool story that really demonstrates just how powerful this concept is.
At the time, I was competing for the Army Powerlifting team. For several months my training partner and I had focused on getting in lots of volume on a daily basis. We would do multiple exercises for a lot of total repetitions at moderate weight. However, we weren’t focused on getting under the bar with heavier loads.
I decided to put us through a Bulgarian-style training phase for our lower body that would help build upon our neuromuscular conditioning. In 3 weeks my squat went from 385 to 475. No, that isn’t a typo. By doing a lot of volume work, my partner and I were able to grow and increase our muscle mass. However, once we started handling heavy weight on a daily basis, our ability to remain calm, focused, and effective under that weight increased dramatically.
All of a sudden, squatting 405 was nothing, whereas before it would have translated into a great day in the gym. We became comfortable enough with the weight that we no longer had to get “psyched up” or listen to loud music. We could simply set up in our squat stance and perform the movement. On top of that, I programmed our numbers so that we never failed a single squat. Do you know how much confidence you gain from squatting over 1,000 times without missing a repetition? We knew that every single time we went down into the hole we were coming back up.
Being as strong as you can be also means that you need to take care of your joints and connective tissue. This is something that a lot of beginners miss out on because they are new to the game and don’t understand the beauty of a healthy body. When I first started lifting and going to the gym, I would do zero stretching and zero warming up. If I was benching, I would just slap on some 45s and go to town. If I was squatting I would do a few leg extensions and call it go time. That isn’t a good long-term strategy.
The more you take care of yourself, the more you will be able to lift, both in frequency and numbers. Your tendons ligaments need to be strong and pliable so that they can help transfer force from your muscle to the bones they are connected to. If you become injured, your tendons will send signals to your muscle form your spinal cord and brain telling them to stop. I will dive into injury prevention and foresight more later on in this article. For now just understand that keeping your body happy and healthy is imperative for building strength.
The level of training that you undergo for strength will largely depend on your personality and end goals. Not everyone wants to be the strongest guy in the gym or even compete in a powerlifting competition. That’s totally cool and understood. However, everyone can benefit from some level of focus on strength.
When you are looking to dive into a new phase of your training, you need to be cognizant of what actionable steps will be required to reach your goal. Knowing this will give you clarity while progressing and training. There are going to be countless areas of your life where improvements can equal more results. However, working to focus on the ones currently doing you the biggest of a disservice will translate into the best return on investment.
If you are just starting out, you need to totally commit and buy in to the new lifestyle that you have chosen for yourself. You made the right move and you are in the right place. Now you need to continue to move forward and invest more and more into achieving your fitness goals. The next thing that is going to determine your strength is how well you can actually perform the exercises. If you are looking to develop a good base of overall strength, the squat, bench, and deadlift are good to use as metrics. Your ability to perform each of them will largely determine how strong you are in the beginning. If you can master the movements, you will see major improvements in the amount of weight that you can lift. I see this time and time again on bench press in particular where I see people make huge leaps in just weeks after learning proper technique and form.
Other factors such as recovery aren’t going to come into play too much when you are first starting out. You won’t be using heavy enough weighs on a consistent basis to bring about issues with you nervous system’s ability to recover.
The cool thing about being new to the gym is that you are literally about to experience massive results. This is because your body hasn’t become insensitive to the stress of lifting weights and working out. You will start lifting, and your muscles will have no other choice but to adapt. And when they adapt, they get bigger and stronger. If you are looking to employ the best training program that you can when you start, know that will maximize your potential and keep you from wasting any time. However, just know that if you have already made the mistake of training improperly for a while before you found this guide, you were doing great things for your body regardless because it doesn’t take much in the beginning.
Kinesthetic awareness will become your friend while developing strength. That just means that you will learn to know where your body is in space. Having this skillset and ability will allow you to realize when you aren’t feeling too hot, and adjust based on what feels the best. Knowing how your body is moving throughout space will also help you to dial in on which muscles are being activated and utilized so that you can make sure you are stimulating the correct areas. A good way to get this down when just starting out is to perform each lift with only the bar.